Will 2024 be a 'good year' for blimps?

November 30, 2023 | By Anthony Venutolo

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In Tech is our regular feature highlighting what people are talking about in the world of technology — everything from crypto and NFTs to smart cities and cybersecurity. 

Pathfinder 1, a prototype electric airship from LTA Research, Google founder Sergey Brin’s company, made its debut this month, TechCrunch reports. Brin has plans to test his airship's airworthiness over the course of the next year at Silicon Valley's Moffett Federal Airfield, location of NASA's Ames Research Center, as well as over the waters of the southern San Francisco Bay. If all goes to plan, he sees the airships being used for humanitarian relief efforts, freight transportation, and environmentally-friendly air travel.

At 66 feet wide and 400 feet long — more than 150 feet longer than the Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger airliner — Pathfinder 1 will be among the largest aircraft to fly since the tragic hydrogen-filled Hindenburg in the 1930s. In the coming months, the massive blimp is expected to become a flying fixture in Silicon Valley as its innovative materials and technologies are carefully tested.

Pathfinder 1's lighter-than-air lift gas is helium, not explosive hydrogen. In order to keep the airship balanced, buoyant and operating at peak performance, lidar (a sensing system that uses light to measure ranges) continuously scans the 13 ripstop nylon gas bags contained within the airship's stiff carbon-fiber and titanium frame. Its exterior is covered with Tedlar — a laminated material that is durable, lightweight, and, most importantly, non-flammable.

“It’s been 10 years of blood, sweat and tears,” LTA CEO Alan Weston told TechCrunch. “Now we must show that this can reliably fly in real-world conditions. And we’re going to do that.” 

Drafting army ants for robot research

Talk about antics. The collaborative abilities of army ants have led engineers from Northwestern University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology to speculate that the insects' behavioral principles and brains could one day be used to program swarms of robots.

Ants differ from species to species, but even so, their brains, which only have a volume of about 1.1 microliters, can store an astonishing amount of data, according to a story in Popular Science. 

The amazing, complex architectural achievements that army ant colonies accomplish with their own bodies are well known. When worker ant hunting parties come across obstructions like small streams, openings in foliage or fallen tree branches, they band together to build a bridge so the rest of the ant family can cross. The principles behind these kind of swift and effective cooperation could be applied to the use of robotics, from space exploration to ocean cleaning initiatives to search and rescue missions in hazardous regions – anywhere robots could save lives, time or resources.

Isabella Muratore, an NJIT postdoctoral researcher who specializes in army ant building techniques, told Popular Science that ants create structures using decentralized collective intelligence processes. “This means that each ant follows a set of rules about how to behave based on sensory input, and this leads to the creation of architectural forms without the need for any prior planning or commands from a leader,” she said.

In collaboration with engineers from NJIT, Muratore's entomologist colleagues and scientists from Northwestern University, she devised an array of assessments intended to measure the behavioral and operational responses of army ant laborers to environmental obstacles. Muratore captured video and then examined the herds' subsequent modifications to continue along their routes after she had inserted impediments in the ants' forest trails.

David Hu, an engineering professor from the Georgia Institute of Technology, recently spoke with NPR about his research on fire ant raft constructions during flooding, comparing the insects to neurons in one large brain. Rather than individual ants choosing the sizes and placements of the bridges, each ant makes a tiny but significant contribution to the decision-making process. And he believes robots, if programmed properly, will be able to do everything ants can.

"Ants are kind of existence proof that such a robot would actually be able to survive and have a lot of interesting problems to solve in the real world," Hu said. "[Ants are] really capable at solving these things with really, really little brainpower."

A ‘prelude’ of great things to come

Do you hear that? Nope, it's not Mariah Carey's infamous holiday chestnut blasting from every direction, but the collective holiday glee of car enthusiasts worldwide because of the gifts bestowed upon them: Two storied automotive nameplates are making their triumphant return to the streets, albeit in very different forms.

Mere weeks after a global debut at the Japan Mobility Show, the hybrid-electric Honda Prelude Concept made its official stateside appearance at Los Angeles Auto Show as a hybrid-electric concept EV.

Honda hybrid-electric models now represent one-quarter of Honda sales in 2023. "Displaying the hybrid Prelude Concept demonstrates our electrification strategy in a sporty and dynamic package," Gary Robinson, vice president of Auto Planning and Strategy for American Honda Motor Co. said in a statement.

The sleek and sporty coupe arrives 45 years after the inaugural Honda Prelude went into production in November 1978. The fan-favorite juggernaut was a mainstay in Honda's portfolio for five generations until 2001, when Honda decided to sunset the car after sales dropped from a peak of nearly 80,000 in 1986 to just 10,000 in 2000.

While trim details of the new Prelude are scant, Honda has revealed that the Prelude concept car's powertrain is hybrid. This suggests that it will most likely be powered by a hybrid system similar to the one present in Honda vehicles, such as the Accord, CR-V, and the forthcoming 2025 Civic hybrid. Car and Driver estimates a starting price for a 2026 model to land around $31,000. 

Also being resurrected is perhaps one of the most recognizable French cars from the 1990s. The Renault Twingo will make its comeback as an EV and mimic its retro city car design with a starting price for less than $22,000, Luca de Meo, CEO of The Renault Group, announced at the inaugural Ampere Capital Markets Day.

Left, the hybrid-electric Honda Prelude Concept. Right, the new Renault Twingo. 

Despite being introduced after Renault left the American market, the Twingo was an enormous hit in Europe for its first generation, which ran from 1992 to 2007. Two subsequent iterations followed, but neither were as groundbreaking or iconic as the original.

"Real and clever" and a "silver bullet for sustainable mobility" were de Meo's praises for the new Twingo. He also said that improved thermal management of the battery — a technique that Volkswagen has been harnessing to increase the range of the electric ID.4 and ID.5 — will contribute to efficiency. The Twingo EV will ride on one of Renault's new EV-specific platforms, but specs have not been released.

He also called the Twingo “a fit-for-purpose urban vehicle with no compromise,” and promised it will clock in with 75% lower CO2 emissions than the average European internal combustion engine sold in 2023. While the car he showed was just a concept, de Meo said Renault will develop it within two years.

Banner photo, LTA Research. 

Anthony Venutolo, Manager, Global Communications